Around this time last year in the spring of 2015, I saw a poster on campus that read “Make Good Decisions.” This poster was obviously in reference to Georgetown Day, the last Friday of classes during the spring semester. Since its inception 16 years ago, it has been tradition for students to drink excessive amounts of alcohol on Georgetown Day. Several days after I saw that the poster, I saw the word “good” had been crossed out on the poster so that it simply read “Make Decisions.”
Among its many effects, alcohol significantly influences decision- and judgment-making. Part of the appeal in alcohol consumption is that it encourages people to step out of their comfort zones. But, as the average undergraduate student knows too well, this chemically induced looseness in behavior often leads to regret. Given this side effect, why is it that so many students continue to drink alcoholic beverages even if it leads them to humiliation? Is the euphoria of the experience of consuming alcohol hopelessly tied to a lack of discretion?
By affecting humans at the biological level, alcohol does seem to fundamentally alter a person’s state of mind, impairing one’s ability to make proper decisions and sound judgments. This phenomenon is rooted in the chemistry of alcohol affecting our consciousness and, ultimately, the way we process decisions.
Inebriation begins with ethanol. While an alcoholic beverage contains multiple components including sugars and acids, you can blame ethanol for the slur in your voice and the stumble in your step. The human body has enzymes that break down ethanol, but when a person drinks at a faster rate than the body can handle, ethanol spreads throughout the nervous system, beginning to affect the body and mind directly.
Ethanol helps activate certain receptors that receive an inhibitory chemical signals. Ethanol increases the inhibition of other neurons and begins effectively depressing the nervous system. This is why alcohol is labeled as a depressant.
Through its resulting effect on our nervous system, alcohol slows down a number of our psychological functions, including the amount of time it takes for a person to respond to a stimulus. Alcohol impairs balance because it inhibits activity in the cerebellum, the part of the brain responsible for motor coordination. Considering all these negative effects, one might ask, why do people drink in the first place?
While alcohol can depress the nervous system, it can increase the release of dopamine as well, which triggers a chemical-reward pathway that explains why people find it pleasurable to drink. However, I also hypothesize that people enjoy how alcohol directly alters consciousness. We live most of our lives sober, and alcohol gives us a chance to jump into a novel mindset of obscurity. While there are certainly other reasons some people choose to drink, including but not limited to social pressure, many of the desirable features of drunkenness stem from alcohol changing the way one perceives the world.
To be fair, probably the best argument for alcoholic debauchery comes from another popular poster I saw off campus last summer. It read, “Alcohol. Because No Good Story Ever Started With Someone Eating a Salad.” Sure, it can be dangerous, but more often than not, alcohol excites the social scene, helping students overcome the awkwardness of breaking the ice and bond over stories of particularly wild nights. And besides, what is life without a little bit of risk?
But nevertheless, when we make decisions on Georgetown Day or any other drinking occasion, we ought to be aware of alcohol’s effects on central nervous system processing and decision-making. Because alcohol impairs judgment and our ability to process decisions, if we choose to drink, we should position ourselves in situations where bad choices may not have terrible consequences. This means we should opt to drink with close friends in familiar places.
The safest decision would certainly be to resist the popular tradition altogether and commit to drinking moderately or not at all. But whatever you choose to do, remember how closely your body is connected to your mind, and accordingly, how illicit substances can alter your ability to think rationally.
Ayan Mandal is a junior in the College. This is the final installment of Grey Matter.